By Beth Hussey
Editor’s Note: Th is article won first place in 2016 for a GMO newsletter award for first-person experience for GMOs with fewer than 74 members. It originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of the Columbia Dressage and Combined Training Association newsletter, Direct Rein.
Not that natural horsemanship, take two…or, the plastic bag is vanquished but now all the neighbors think I’m crazy.
Wolfie and I are six weeks into our natural horsemanship experiment, and we have finally progressed beyond pushing him around to get him to move away from direct pressure. He is still not as light as he could be, but he understands what is expected of him and moves his feet properly when I ask him correctly. It is not as easy as it sounds. He is a big boy and when he does what he is supposed to be I have to hump it to keep up with him and not put any stress or tension on the lead rope at all, in order to prevent his thinking that I want him to stop. I end up sort of hop –running around his outside shoulder while trying to keep his forward progress unimpeded. If I get too far ahead, it stops him dead. If I get too far behind I can’t control his shoulder at all.
It’s like riding in that you have to do a million things at once and perfectly correctly, or you end up sending him the wrong signal. It might be harder than riding; I know I’m huffing and puffing at the end of our sessions. It is also like riding in that you always go back to the basics, every time. They are improving but not perfect, but if you wait for perfect you will never advance so after the last lesson Melanie decided it was time to address The Spook. It is no secret to any of you who have seen the pair of us that Wolfie possesses a truly impressive sideways lurch away from anything to which he suddenly takes exception. It has held us back on the show circuit, because he is more likely to freak out away from home, and it has also gotten in the way of our partnership, because the threat of his gigantic spook causes me to ride both more defensively and more apprehensively than I should. One of my primary goals in starting with natural horsemanship was that I hoped we could work through some of his more egregious startle-moments.
So last week Melanie told me to find some scary stuff and we would start working with those. I had a white plastic trash bag, an umbrella, and a bright blue cooler. We tied the trash bag to the end of the training stick and showed it to Wolfie, who thought it was all the evils of this world rolled up into a crinkly squishy package and shied immediately. We expected him to do it, and we didn’t make a big deal of it. Instead, Melanie started pulling the bag behind her and allowing Wolfie to follow it, which with some reluctance he did. Periodically she would stop, advance the bag towards him, he would freak, and she would calmly start walking away again. He did improve in that session, but it was clear that he was actually afraid, or concerned, and not just being stupid. We didn’t push it much farther but she said the eventual goal was to be able to flap the bag all around him and all over his head and rump and behind him with no reaction on his part at all. Right, I thought, we’ll do that and then I will go jump him around the Rolex cross -country course. Both seemed equally likely.
Over the last week I have been dutifully trudging around the arena, Wolfie in tow at the end of a (very loose) leadrope. I advanced the bag, he snorted, I retreated the bag, he walked…and walked…and walked…We both got pretty bored. I started waving the bag over my head like a flag. He almost snorted – and then ignored it. Hmm, I thought. I advanced the bag again. This time, he tried to eat it.
That was the turning point. It had ceased to be a horse-eating bag when he decided to chew on it.
The remainder of the week I have been marching around the arena like a deranged baton twirler, throwing the bag-on-stick in the air, catching it, flinging it ahead and running to get it, waving it like a surrender flag, you name it, we do it. And when I bring it back to him, he tries to eat it. I can flop the thing on the top of his head, under his belly, behind his tail. He is so over the plastic bag.
I can only imagine the picture I have presented over the last week to anyone who might be watching. It doesn’t look like much from a distance. But the difference in his demeanor is nothing short of amazing to me. Of course, we still have the umbrella-and the cooler-and probably other plastic bags, quite different in his horsey mind from the one he has conquered. Knowing he has found the courage to eat one plastic bag though, gives him that much more self-confidence when he is next confronted with whatever terrifying thing is around the corner.